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Design & society: “local community should be involved”

“When they’re designing things in cities, local community people should be involved, because it is we that are actually going to live there.”

So said peace campaigner and activist Dr Erinma Bell at the sixth edition of The Great Debate, Britain’s public discussion about design and society, which takes place every year in Manchester during the city’s design festival.

Since it began, The Great Debate has tackled cities, education and the social and economic value of design, with designers and architects, city leaders including Richard Leese and Andy Burnham, and developers such as Gary Neville.

You can watch all the debates here.

2019: Liveable cities
2016: City identity
2018: Creative education
2015 Value(s) of design
2017: The public’s realm?
2014: NORTH

The first, in 2014, took place in Manchester School of Art’s newly opened Benzie building designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley, a Stirling Prize finalist that year. Titled NORTH, the discussion centred on the then freshly minted Northern Powerhouse and the rapidly approaching prospect of city devolution.

The debate was chaired by Observer assistant editor Robert Yates, with a panel comprising the Dean of Manchester School of Art, David Crow, Creative England CEO Caroline Norbury, Manchester City Council Leader Sir Richard Leese and Lou Cordwell, the CEO of design agency magneticNorth.

The Whitworth Gallery, newly redeveloped by MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects) and also a Stirling Prize finalist, was the venue of The Value(s) of design in 2015, chaired by RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor with panellists Lou Cordwell, Design Council CEO John Mather, Manchester City Council policy chief Jessica Bowles and Cabinet Office Policy lab head Andrea Siodmok.

The Designers Republic’s Ian Anderson and City ID’s Mike Rawlinson sat alongside Andy Burnham, Peter Mandelson, digital innovator Emer Coleman and urbanist Claire Mookerjee at the 2016 debate on City Identity in the Bonded Warehouse at the Old Granada Studios, chaired this time by Lou Cordwell.

It was back to the Benzie building in 2017 to debate The Public’s Realm? with footballer-turned-developer Gary Neville, whose plans for a new development in Manchester City Centre had received a rocky reception before being reimagined. Gary was joined by the city architect of Dublin, Ali Grehan, and Hawkins\Brown architect and partner Katy Tonkinson.

That great slogan by the artist Bob and Roberta Smith, All schools should be art schools, was the topic of the fifth debate in 2018, with a panel that included Manchester City Council chief executive Joanne Roney, Manchester College principal Lisa O’Loughlin, Design Council’s innovation director Ellie Runcie, Lou Cordwell and the manager of the All-Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group, Jack Tindale, and chaired by Kasper de Graaf.

In 2019 the debate formed part of a wider series of events on the theme of “liveable cities” organised jointly with the Danish Embassy. Manchester that year had been named by The Economist as Britain’s most liveable city, sparking the debate question about What makes a liveable city? in this day and age. Chaired by Kasper de Graaf, the panel comprised Standard Practice creative principal Ben Young, Levitt Bernstein director and architect Jo McCafferty, peace campaigner and community activist Erinma Bell, the chief architect of the city of Aarhus in Denmark Stephen Willacy, and city innovator Patricia Brown.


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